Li on love and the lives of sexual minorities / Akutagawa Prize winner explores gender themes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Taiwanese novelist Li Kotomi

Novelist Li Kotomi doesn’t believe in boundaries. National boundaries, linguistic boundaries, gender boundaries — she transcends all of them in her writing, including her novel “Higanbana ga Saku Shima” (The island where red spider lilies bloom), which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in July.

Even her own life story defies boundaries. Li, 31, was born and raised in Taiwan but has lived in Japan since 2013. The multilingual Li made her Japanese debut as a novelist in 2017 and she also works as a translator and an interpreter.

“My parents spoke Chinese at home and my grandparents used Taiwanese. I studied both English and Japanese,” Li said.

“Higanbana ga Saku Shima” is set on a fictitious island where three languages are spoken — “Hinomoto Kotoba,” “Nihon-go” and “Jogo.” Her novel conjures up a mysterious melting-pot world.

Li came to Japan and studied linguistics at university, where she came to appreciate the linguistic richness of her home island. In addition to Chinese and Taiwanese, Japanese is spoken by elderly Taiwanese who learned it during the era of Japanese control. And there are other languages spoken by Taiwan’s indigenous people, such as the Atayal language, and a creole that mixes Japanese and indigenous languages. The novel seems to aim to blend these.

“In my past works, I have used various languages like Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese. When writing the novel, I thought blending languages would be an interesting experiment,” Li said.

Li grew up in a rural area where the bus came only a few times a day.

She has been into writing since childhood. During her elementary school days, she created her own Doraemon story. When she was a second-year junior high school student, she submitted a work of fiction to a youth newspaper and was published for the first time. “I was glad that what I wrote was published in print and that I received payment for my writing,” she recalled.

Around that time, Li started to study Japanese on her own, even though it was not needed for her high school entrance exam. She has been familiar with Japanese anime such as “Pokemon” and “Detective Conan” for as long as she can remember. So, when she thought of learning foreign languages, it was natural for her to choose Japanese.

Her junior high school put priority on preparing students to get into good schools. Her homeroom teacher, from a generation who received anti-Japanese education, “didn’t like me studying Japanese,” she said.

While in high school, she went to a private Japanese language school twice a week and loved reading the comic series “Inuyasha.” At the National Taiwan University, she read a Chinese translation of the Tale of Genji and studied as an exchange student at Waseda University for a year just after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

She also joined a competitive karuta circle, playing a Japanese card game based on “Hyakunin Isshu,” a classic collection of 100 poems by 100 poets. Among them, she likes a love poem by Fujiwara no Yoshitaka from the mid-Heian period (794 to the late 12th century).

It reads: “Kimi ga tame oshikarazarishi inochi sae nagaku moganato omoi keru kana.” It can be translated as: “For your sake, even my life that was not dear to me, I wish it would last longer.”

Li explained: “There are many expressions to convey the message, ‘I would die for you.’ But I was moved by the poem expressing, ‘While I’ve thought I could die any time, I now want to live longer because I met you.’”

Love and the lives of sexual minorities are themes common to Li’s novels. Since her debut novel “Hitorimai” (Solo dance), she has been consistently writing about the love and hardships of women who are sexual minorities, including “Itsutsu Kazoereba Mikazukiga” (If you count five, the crescent moon). Her urgent concern with this topic is closely connected to the issue of “categories,” or the categorization of people by laying down boundaries.

Her novel “Polaris ga Furisosogu Yoru” (The night of the shining North Star) describes women who identify as various sexual orientations and gender identities, such as lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender. Li said, “If a category exists for your own sexuality, you may feel less isolated, but we should not forget that there are people who are suffering because they feel bound by such categories.”

The “Higanbana” novel is set in a world where the gender power structure is reversed and women take over history and rituals. “I don’t think that’s an ideal world. If we look at the world from the perspective of male-female confrontation, there would still be the issue of transgender people. I don’t think it is right to determine norms based on gender,” Li said.

She thinks that all boundaries are just fictions. “For society to function, categories and boundaries are necessary. But when humans did not exist, there were no boundaries,” she said.

Li Kotomi

Born in Taiwan in 1989, Li is an alumna of Waseda University’s graduate school. Her novel “Itsutsu Kazoereba Mikazukiga” (If you count five, the crescent moon) was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize in 2019 and she was awarded the 2020 art encouragement prize for newcomers for “Polaris ga Furisosogu Yoru” (The night of the shining North Star). She won the 2021 Akutagawa Prize for “Higanbana ga Saku Shima” (The island where red spider lilies bloom).